Important in history and in the lives of Seacoast residents for 135 years, The Music Hall has brought nationally and internationally acclaimed artists to this small city, making world-class entertainment readily accessible to the region. Since 1878 it has reflected and affected the growth of this bright corner of New England, serving as an important gathering place. Its performers have ranged from Mark Twain to Wynton Marsalis and David Crosby; Vaudeville acts with elephants to RENT the musical and violinist Joshua Bell.
The theater stands on the site of one of Portsmouth’s original meeting houses, “The Temple,” which had once been a Baptist Meeting House and, before that, the site of the country’s first Alms House as well as a prison. A series of fires have colored the site’s history, the most significant the Christmas Eve of 1876 which inspired a group of Seacoast residents, including many members of the Peirce family , to build The Music Hall as we know it today. For the next few decades The Music Hall brought the community Opera, Drama, Dance and traditional Vaudeville fare from as far away as Europe and as close as our own community players.
The Famed D’oyley Carte Company (Gilbert & Sullivan) performed Pirates of Penzance within weeks of its US premiere, and countless Shakespearean actors known around the world graced The Music Hall stage, including Margaret Mather, Thomas W Keene and John Drew. Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West show performed their smaller indoor show numerous times, and Portsmouth saw its very first moving pictures on Edison’s Graphophone here in 1898.
As is true today, The Music Hall was also dedicated to providing support for local organizations to raise money and awareness through the arts. Groups such as The Masons, the Portsmouth Athletic Club and The Chase Home for Children produced local benefits to raise money for their various causes.
After a second “birth” in 1901 when the theater was partially renovated and restored by Frank Jones, local politician-brewer-railroad baron, The Music Hall remained a central feature of the downtown area through the mid 1920’s.
Broadway was well represented, with performances of Peter Pan, Wizard of Oz and No, No, Nanette among many other shows coming to the theater within the first weeks of leaving “the great white way” in New York City.
Thoughout, The Music Hall remained the home of community events and High School graduations, fewer traveling shows were presented between the World Wars, and film became the primary entertainment draw for residents of Portsmouth. While adapted for film showing, The Music Hall could not compete with the three venues created in the teens expressly for that purpose, and went through a period of partial closings that lasted until a Kittery man purchased the building in 1945 at auction and renamed the hall The Civic.
For almost four decades Music Hall audiences watched the stars of the screen ranging from John Wayne to John Barrymore and were able to catch up on the latest newsreels or episodes of their favorite serial.
By the mid-1960s, the Hall had been leased to movie palace mogul E.M. Loew and operated in tandem with his other theater, The Colonial, in Market Square. Though relegated to showing some of the less popular film titles, The Civic remained a favored venue for the Portsmouth community until sold to a holding company in the early 1980’s when it was “too old” to be of any use to Loew.
After another brief period of closure and trip to the auction block, The Music Hall was once again re-opened. Thanks to the generosity, hard work and foresight of a group of concerned residents known as The Friends of The Music Hall, and following in the footsteps of the Peirce Family of more than a century before, the theater emerged as non-profit center for the performing arts.
Saved from demolition by the community in 1987 and blossoming today with nationally recognized programs, the nonprofit art center is delicately balancing successful growth. Since its 2003 designation as an “American Treasure,” by the US Senate. The Music Hall has emerged as a cultural anchor in the region, engaging 100,000 patrons each year, including 20,000 school children. The Music Hall has grown as an attraction, drawing visitors from outside the region as well as residents to its award winning programs and signature series, including Writers on a New England Stage, Telluride by the Sea, and Met Opera broadcasts from Lincoln Center. The Music Hall’s contribution to the local economy in show and visitor related spending has swelled to $7 million annually.
The Music Hall’s award-winning restorations and renovations of its landmark 1878 Historic Theater have brought back details dating to 1878 and 1901, periods of architectural significance. Visitors today enjoy the theater’s gloriously restored proscenium arch and auditorium, its fanciful and functional Founders Lobby, and the latest restoration, the expanded elegant upper lobby leading into the auditorium. The Music Hall received the Preservation Achievement Award from the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance for the “outstanding restoration of the auditorium and proscenium arch” and the NH American Institute of Architects Excellence in Architecture Award for the Historic Theater. Patrons look forward to the Crystal Ball in November 2013 when the chandelier and sconces are hung in the auditorium. Beyond those renovations, the Music Hall Loft opened in 2011 around the corner on Congress Street, a 124-seat theater that also houses administrative offices. The Loft was recently named “best performing arts venue” by Yankee Magazine and was also the recipient of the NH AIA award for design excellence.